The Wake-Up Call

There is a group of men in South Florida who insist they knew the horrific events of September 11 were coming. They didn't know the particulars -- the day, or the way it would happen -- but they have long felt certain that a deadly large-scale act of terrorism on United States soil was inevitable. Furthermore they are convinced that such attacks will continue in the near future.

These men, mostly older and retired, have worked on the frontlines of counterterrorism, hunting the bombers, spies, and smugglers endemic to this area in the Seventies and Eighties. Some of them participated in secret missions to attack Cuba, or, conversely, worked for Castro to defend the island nation. They belonged to a variety of different law-enforcement and intelligence agencies on both sides of the Florida Straits, from the CIA to Metro-Dade police to the Cuban Department of State Security.

In an effort to try to understand the post-September 11 security challenges facing the nation, and South Florida in particular, New Times interviewed more than half a dozen of these local counterterrorism experts. The questions were simple: What are our vulnerabilities? What must be done to defend ourselves? What can we expect from the future?

Surprisingly, despite the differences of political perspective and experience among those polled, there was widespread agreement on several key points. All concurred that the U.S. government's intelligence services have lost their way, relying too heavily on technology instead of human resources. Most decried the lack of coordination between local and federal law enforcement. Some criticized U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's detention of hundreds of possible suspects as detrimental to an effective investigation of terrorist cells. Finally several cited cultural problems that cut to the core of who we are as a nation, detailing a self-indulgent complacency among many Americans that, combined with a "convenience-store mentality," renders our nation psychologically unprepared to deal with catastrophic terrorist acts.

Never far from the discussion was the specter of more attacks. During the course of six weeks of conversations with New Times, the U.S. Justice Department issued three separate terrorism alerts. Evidence also mounted that the al Qaeda terrorist organization has access to the material and expertise to make a "dirty bomb," which if exploded could contaminate a large area with radioactive fallout. Most of those surveyed believe it is simply a matter of when, not whether, the United States will fall victim to this sort of violence again.

One of José A. Lopez's many feats during his 27 years as a U.S. marshal was the capture of rogue CIA agent Edwin Wilson in 1982. Wilson, who had sold twenty tons of explosives to Libya, took refuge in that nation in an attempt to evade U.S. authorities. Lopez, a tall man with a laconic style, operated as a Dominican Air Force colonel to mastermind the operation that lured Wilson from Libya to the Dominican Republic, where federal authorities apprehended him. A native of Puerto Rico, Lopez also helped investigate and arrest independence terrorists from the island, such as the Macheteros and the Armed Forces of National Liberation, responsible for scores of bombings and robberies. He retired in 1992 as a chief inspector and currently is a senior director at Security Associates Group, a Miami-based consulting firm.

Lopez, who battled the first wave of modern twentieth-century terrorists in the United States in the the Sixties, is not impressed with the present state of U.S. intelligence. "Our intelligence sucks," he says flatly.

"The way we broke up the Macheteros was through infiltration. The people who were working those cells knew how they thought and knew where to look."

Such methods are a rarity today, he believes.

"I remember when I was young, intelligence analysts were scholars," Lopez continues. "They were people who knew history. Now I see a bunch of very bright kids who are fantastic with their laptop computers. You take that fucking computer away from them and they are lost. And they are the intelligence analysts. Once you have the human intelligence, then you can go back and play with your satellites, and play with your computer, and then it has some meaning."

Retired Metro-Dade Police Lt. Raul Diaz, who maintains a friendship with Lopez, echoes that sentiment. Diaz led CENTAC-26 (Central Tactical Unit), a federally funded task force involving Metro-Dade County, the City of Miami, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) created in 1980 to investigate drug-related murders. The group actively pursued South Florida's cocaine cowboys at the height of their murderous rampage. Diaz, who now operates a private investigative firm called ICDA Consulting Services, also logged years in the Seventies investigating the dozens of bombings and terrorist murders then rocking Miami.